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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

OpenNews aims to satiate demand for news-savvy coders… or is it code-savvy journalists?

News organizations are sold on the need for coding skills — but but now there aren’t enough developers to fill jobs.

OpenNews logo

One hundred Internet years ago, in 2010, Dan Sinker got together with Mozilla and the Knight Foundation to push more news organizations to embrace the open web. Five technologists were selected as News Technology fellows, charged with bringing the “show your work” ethos to traditional newsrooms across the country.

The fellowships are just getting underway, but now Sinker wants to solve a new problem: Suddenly news organizations are hiring coders, data visualizers, and product managers like crazy — The Washington Post alone has 17 openings in IT and engineering! — but there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs.

Today Knight and Mozilla announced a new name and expanded scope for the News Technology Partnership, reborn as OpenNews. The project will turn its focus more toward getting developers excited about newsrooms, not the other way around. There are plans for more hack days, a new website to share code and lessons learned, and new educational materials for the code-curious. The core function of the project, the fellowship program, will stick around, but Sinker said they are tinkering with the particulars of future fellowships.

“The big problem right now is, Where are the developers?”

“If you talk to some of the newsrooms that are ahead of the curve…the big problem right now for them is, Where are the developers?” Sinker told me. It’s barely a year-and-a-half-old phenomenon. “That is not a problem that is unique to news. It’s a problem that is unique to every single person that is trying to hire developers in 2012, including startups.”

Yeah, I said, but startups have the advantage. More money and sex appeal than newspapers.

“That’s probably a cop-out of an argument. I think if you look at some of the unbelievable talent that exists in news right now — people like Brian Boyer or all the people at The New York Times, you’ve got people who could be doing work and did do work in well-paying jobs at startups or in financial services or things like that,” he said.

“The argument for better-paying jobs is like, well, why does anyone become a journalist? Why don’t they all go into PR? They’re good at writing. They’re good at telling people things about things. Well, they do it because they want to do good. They do it because they want to change the world, and not just sell something.”

Sinker said he is borrowing from the success of the open-government movement. A lot more news developers today come from hack days than j-school, he said. Knight and Mozilla did host hack days last year, but those were more like meetups and brainstorms, Sinker said. What Sinker has in mind are heads-down coding marathons. He said OpenNews wants to sponsor more self-hosted hack days, as well.

The OpenNews team is also developing a new website, Source, to help support the news developer community as it grows bigger. Think Stack Overflow + GitHub for journalists. (Sinker DM’d me after this piece went up: “I’d say Source is less Stack Overflow + Github, and more Nieman Lab + A List Apart.”)

“You’ve got a ton of teams that are documenting their work. You’ve got a bunch of GitHub repos, you’ve got all kinds of action happening around it, but there’s no real center point,” he explained. “That was kind of the seed of Source, was, Man it would be handy if there’s a place you could go and just find out what’s going on in all of these teams.”

And Sinker is working with the Mozilla Learning Team to figure out how to inculcate new journo-hackers. “I think you see it a lot at a Hacks/Hackers meetup,” he said, “journalists who really don’t have a lot of web skills at all but they really want to learn it.” He is developing an online curriculum that would ease newbies into HTML, CSS, and data visualization.

Full disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

                                   
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Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard wants to hear your idea for making journalism better. Come spend a few weeks working on it in Cambridge.
  • Anonymous

    Just one example of a potential objective, surely not too much to ask? Clearly we can’t all be techno warriors of the new paradigm, can we?

  • Coder with a J degree

    I’m sorry, but where are the developers?  They’re working for companies that understand that $50k/year is an entry level salary not the top of the scale like it is at so many newspapers.

    I’ve seen so many of my peers leave the industry, many times reluctantly, begging for enough of a raise to at least pretend to be competitive only to be scoffed at.

    If the news industry is serious, they’ll make an effort to attract and retain talented developers, but as it stand now, the industry seems content to let them walk out the door and wonder why.